I am quite ambivalent about commercial wine competitions. In the best of circumstances they can be a bit of a crap shoot. You don't want to be the first wine that the judging panels samples (they aren't going to give a gold medal to the first wine they taste), and if you are in a really large category, like Chardonnay, where there might be 100 entries, you definitely don't want to be the last one judged (how do you still taste a wine after about 15 or 20?). That being said, they do have a utility. Commercial wine competitions are expensive to enter, so I don't generally enter very many wines, only the ones that I think will do very well, and allow me to gauge how my skills are developing. The California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition is the best known, the Orange County Fair competition is the largest, the San Francisco Chronicle is the most prestigious. Of the hundreds of wine competitions in America, these are the only three I enter regularly. The SF Chron is my favorite, mainly because they don't allow winemakers on the judging panels. This may seem counter-intuitive; it is not. Winemakers have a tendency to be myopic. They know what they do, they like what they do, their scope can be somewhat limited. This can be problematic when your focus is obscure varietals that many, if not most, California winemakers have never even heard of. Wine writers, bloggers, critics, sommeliers on the other hand, tend to have a much broader wine experience. For this reason, my wines always do better at competitions like the San Francisco Chronicle competition. Which seques me to the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition:
Montoliva 2015 Negroamaro - Silver Medal
Montoliva 2015 Dolcetto - Double Gold
Montoliva 2014 Aglianico - Best of Class
I am particularly pleased with the Double Gold for our current Dolcetto. This is awarded when all five judges on the panel agree that the wine they are sampling is superior. Any idea how hard it is to get five wine critics to agree on anything?! Double Golds aren't awarded very often. I thought the Negroamaro deserved a better score, there's my ambivalence towards competitions. Sometimes you just can't account for taste. Cheers, Mark
2017 I will mark ten years since I unleashed my first Sangiovese on an unsuspecting public in 2007. It came from the first commercial harvest of my estate vineyard; the grapes were picked in 2005. 2005 was not a particularly good year for wine grapes in northern California, and I recall adding in a little of the 2006 vintage of Sangiovese into the 2005. This was, at the time, not strictly legal, but frankly the ’05 needed some help and it being my first release, I could not afford to simply throw it away, like I could/would now (and did with vintage 2011, another “not particularly good year” in northern California). I remember vividly the struggle I had with coming up with the right descriptors for that wine. I knew I was working in somewhat uncharted waters, making a wine that had more in common with a typical Chianti than what was generally considered marketable in California. I figured as the years went on the words would more readily come to me (if you have ever visited the winery, you know I’m rarely at a loss for words). Yet, here I am winding down 2018, nearly ten years later, and I still have a difficult time coming up with descriptors that will accurately portray my wine without scaring away potential customers.
The word that most vexes me is “acidic”. I just can’t figure out a way to say this about my Sangiovese and my Aglianico in a way that doesn’t have wine consumers backing up with their palms out. Acidic, tart, sharp, astringent, these all have acquired negative connotations in relation to wine in California. I don’t have this problem with my Barbera. It is quite acidic as well, commonly being bottled at a pH of around 3.2. Barbera makes a very fruity wine, and the natural acid of Barbera makes the fruit very “bright”. So, there it is…my Barbera is “bright”. Neither Sangiovese, nor Aglianico are particularly fruity, at least the way I make them, so “bright” doesn’t really work. I don’t have this issue with my white wines either. Some years my Falanghina is fairly sharp, which combined with its natural lightness makes a wine that can be accurately described as “snappy”. Snappy is good for a light summer wine. My Sangiovese is not a light summer wine…neither is my Aglianico.
Generally, this isn’t an issue for visitors to the winery. Visitors can taste both wines and decide for themselves if they like it or not. It isn’t an issue in the grocery environment either, as with rare exceptions (like the Briar Patch in Grass Valley) I don’t sell either of these wines through grocery stores. It has, however, started to become an issue with on-line sales. How do I explain to a potential purchaser that my Sangiovese has a structure and acidity that is much more pronounced that what is the norm in California…and frankly, more than what is the norm for a lot of Chiantis that are being made today for the American and Chinese markets (which means it has become less useful today to say “it’s got a ‘Chianti-like’ character”). I suppose I could write a 600-word essay on the difficulties with coming up with the right terminology to explain how these two wines present themselves, then link that to the vintage listings on my website. Yeah…that just might work!
“Rustic, in the best sense of the word”….oh man, did they really have to use that word? My first thought when I read the review that accompanied the “Best of Appellation” Award for our 2005 Sangiovese. Rustic. In its traditional usage, “rustic” conjures up images of Honest Abe Lincoln growing up in his Kentucky log cabin. It connotes a simpler, unadorned, almost Calvinistic purity, an honesty backdropped against busy, relativistic modernity. Make no mistake about it, however, in the wine world “rustic” is NOT a compliment. It is not a word used to describe wines that are honest, unadorned and pure. It is a bludgeon used against wines that don’t follow the flabby, flaccid, over-blown cotton candy fruit-bomb that is the rage of New World wine. (come on Mark, don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel).
In the past, it is the word I have most dreaded hearing when my wines have been described by writers, critics, bloggers, wine shop owners. As soon as I hear that word, I’ve become conditioned to simply pack up my bottles and move on, my time wasted on someone who frankly is too conditioned to the so-called “New World Palate” to understand, let alone appreciate, what I do.
I have, in the past, assiduously avoided using this term in the winery, preferring to refer to my wines with industry approved words like “tannic”, “dry”, “varietally appropriate” (when using that term is…well, appropriate).
Over the last several years the wine world has been abuzz with the term “natural”. We won’t even get started on this phenomenon (a topic for another day), however, it is a term that I am asked about in the winery. In describing what “natural” winemaking means to me, and where I fall on the scale between highly manipulated and “all-natural”, I have come around to explaining that my approach to winemaking can be described as constructed in a simple fashion. Coincidentally, this is also a reasonable definition for the word “rustic”.
So, there it is. I’m reclaiming the use of the word rustic. It is what my wines are after all.
There are many truisms in business. “Build a Better Mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” Is a time honored, and honorable truism that is oddly enough credited to the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Create a need, and then fill it”…yeah, time honored, but not so honorable.
This is what comes to mind whenever someone asks my opinion about wine bottle closures. How do I feel about “alternative” closures like synthetic cork, Zork or screw-caps? I hate them. I hate them all (no, really, Mark…how do you feel?). They are, today, in my mind, a solution looking for a problem. And not a very good solution at that. In fact, ultimately, a “solution” that creates more problems than it purports to solve.
What problem does “alternative” closures seek to solve? What “need” has been created? As recently as 2005 Wine Spectator Magazine had reported that no less than 7% of all the wines they had received as samples showed some sign of “cork taint”, a condition that at its least robs a wine of its distinctiveness, at worst gives you a wine that tastes like wet cardboard. Yikes! No wonder the mad rush to metal and plastic closures! Hang on! Before you take the pledge to only buy screw-cap bottles, let’s get “The Rest of the Story”.
Cork taint is caused by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (also known as TCA). Until recently (last 10 year or so), all we knew was that a certain level of this compound existed in wine corks. It wasn’t until very recently that wine cork manufacturers determined that it wasn’t so much the cork itself that was responsible for TCA, it was the chlorine that was widely used for cleaning and sterilizing cork that caused most of the TCA issues. The answer – use something other than chlorine, like steam. Problem mostly resolved. Current research indicates that cork taint is still an issue with between .7-1.2% of wines sealed with cork. But just how much of an issue?
Additional research indicates that 99% of the population can detect TCA at levels of 200-300 parts per million. One of Wine Spectator’s reviewers is reputed to be able to detect wine with TCA at 2-3 ppm. To which I respond…so what if some critic has superhuman powers. I don’t…you probably don’t. If it can’t be detected, just how much of a problem is it?
But hey, why not screw-caps and/or plastic? Especially if it reduces the potential of cork taint to 0%. In life there are trade-offs. As a winemaker, I want to provide my customers with the best possible wine I can, while maintaining as much philosophical integrity as I can. Of the various wine closures available, only cork is 100% renewable, 100% biodegradable, and uses a lot less petroleum products than plastic. Additionally, cork forests are unique bio-systems that thrive in regions that are inhospitable to most forms of agriculture. If cork farmers can’t feed their families growing cork, they will cut those forests down and graze cows or sheep. Finally, if more locally produced economic activity is desirable (I think it is), then the equation becomes simple. What would you rather have in your backyard – a cork forest, an aluminum smelting plant or an oil refinery?
There is a saying in the wine world (well, actually there are lots of sayings..most of them not relevant to this post). It is said that the hard part about winemaking isn’t making wine, it’s selling wine. I have to disagree. The hard part about winemaking is writing a “wine descriptor”. You know, that pithy, informative, entertaining, useful paragraph that purports to tell you what what to expect when you put a glass of Montoliva wine to your lips. It’s not that I have a problem with writing itself. Heck, someone actually published a book I wrote on brewing back in the 20th century. Got all the words spelled right, and everything. No, it’s not the writing, it’s the “pithy, informative, entertaining, useful” part that I find exceedingly difficult. What constitutes a good description, or review, of a wine?
Is it prose? Should a good review read like a Shakespeare sonnet?
How do I taste thee? Let me count the ways.
I taste thee of the fruit, earthiness and tannin,
That I still taste, even when you are out of sight.
(with apologies to Ms. Browning)
Should it have a bit more of an objective slant?
· Harvest at exactly 4:35am, 16 Sept 2007
· Brix – 25.14159265
· TA – 8.56295
· pH – 3.49
I’ve got to be honest with you…I’m skeptical of descriptors that tell me what I am supposed to be tasting, especially when it references something that has me lunging for the dictionary. “This Sauvignon Blanc has the distinct character of an underripe Durian”. I mean, what the heck is a ‘durian’?
So, yes, I find it difficult to write those descriptors that you read when you visit the winery. I taste my wines very differently than you do. And I don’t want to TELL you what you are enjoying (it is my sincerest hope that you appreciate MV&W wines without excessive prompting). If you devolve our descriptors down, you will find that they all basically say the same thing – our wines are not “fruit bombs”, we strive to bring out the earthiness of the central and southern Italian varietals we work with, our wines tend toward being dry in the finish, and we work to make the fruit flavor “varietal” in character (whatever that may be for the given varietal). I throw in a few numbers for those who like to know that information. Mostly, though, I’m trying to write something to entice you to try the wine. I work with some pretty odd varietals. The first step towards determining if you like Aglianico, or Negroamaro, is getting it to your lips.
I have been thinking a lot about synergy. Synergy, in general, may be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable. I’ve just wrapped up bottling our 2008 Sierra Bella, a blend of Sangiovese, Teroldego, Cabernet Sauvignon and Primitivo. I like to describe wine blending as an attempt to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts; what is that if not synergy incarnate? Synergy came to mind yesterday morning as I was driving out to the Grass Valley Farmers Market to pick up my weekly produce box from Willow Creek Farm. I belong to their CSA. As it happens, the farmer’s father also belongs to our winery wine club, the Chicago Park Wine Society. As it also so happens, Willow Creek Farm represents Montoliva wines at the Saturday market. There’s synergy busting out all over the place in this relationship!
As I sit here at my computer I am able to gaze out the window at the beautiful garden that Julianne has developed over the years. The depth of synergy between Julianne and I becomes all too apparent when she is not here. There is an inspiration… a spark, that is missing. We have a beautiful estate home, vineyard and winery. We have cats. A dog. Lots of wine waiting to be enjoyed, and a magnificent vista as a backdrop for that enjoyment. Without my wine muse, they are all pieces waiting to be blended together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Waiting for Synergy.